What’s a theatre critic good for anyway? Theatre Critics, and art critics more generally, are going extinct; at least in the form we have known them for a few centuries. An article by Stephen Hunt ran in the Globe back in October, discussing the midwinter ecosystem of cultural criticism in this country: Postmedia has pared down the arts staff in all major cities outside of Toronto to include, at most, one all-purpose culture critic. Alternative weeklies are following suit, if not folding all together. The landscape of art criticism in traditional media is bleak.
From the perspective of the bloggers that Mr. Hunt lauds in his article, I can only laugh at the idea of $10,000 as a “micro-grant.” Up until last month, the New Ottawa Critics, who post upwards of 100 theatre reviews per year, received literally zero dollars of financial support of any kind from any individual or institution outside our collective. At the time of writing this article, we earn $9 a month from Patreon supporters.
Mr. Hunt is correct when he says that this is a futile career prospect. You would be hard pressed to feed a dormouse on $9 a month, let alone support an artistic career. Let me be explicit: $10,000 would constitute 92 times more than our present annual budget of $108.
Critics are in a difficult position when it comes to raising funds for their efforts. We cannot appeal to theatre companies for funding, because this creates a conflict of interest (whether real or perceived, it hardly matters). Nor can we appeal directly to festivals, venues, or artists for the same reason. Since that pretty much covers the range of people with a vested interest in our words, either positive or critical, (that is to say, who might be willing to pay to keep us in work), we are left with appealing to the general public, who are unlikely to notice our extinction until it is too late.
Critics used to be valued at major news outlets. This was a perfect place for them: they had the large readership brought by the general interest in the publication that made their voices relevant, and their opinions were supported by a platform independent from the interests of theatre companies and professionals. It seems as though this is no longer financially viable for these papers.
This leaves cultural funding from granting bodies as essentially the sole platform to which theatre critics can appeal for financial support. Unfortunately, despite three years publishing reviews on our blog, and over 400 productions reviewed, not to mention the odd bit of paid work, we aren’t ‘professional’ enough to qualify for funding from the Canada Council. In the present critical ecosystem, how does one ever become professional? No one is paying critics, and we can’t get grants because no one has paid us yet. If that’s the measure of what it takes to be a professional, then I guess we might never get there.
If we are to accept that critics are an integral part of the theatrical landscape (and I think they are; more on this in subsequent articles), and we value the creation of quality work within that landscape, then critics need to be eligible for funding on a similar scale to the playwrights, dramaturgs, actors, and theatre companies that they engage with artistically. If it is impossible to make even part of a living as a theatre critic, then there won’t be theatre critics, or at least none who can dedicate substantial time to improving and thinking about their craft.
Nevertheless, here we are, writing about the art that you make and watch, and hoping to help you make better art into the future. Hoping that a few people will read our words and choose to see your production, and then participate in an ongoing dialogue about it.
I want to make it clear: I am not complaining about this state of affairs. I am working actively to change them with every key that I strike. I think that Mr. Hunt’s idea for a Critics’ Council is a great one to implement even without any funding from the Canada Council (theatre bloggers have got to be used to it by now). Perhaps with a critical mass (pun intended) of writers, we can make our voices heard and generate revenue to support our efforts. Certainly we can better contribute to the artistic ecology of this country. As things stand, there is no place for us to go that has existed up until now, so it seems like critics must make their own place, somewhere in the wilds of the internet. We are all becoming bloggers, whether we like it or not.
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